The Matterhorn Cat: History of a Story

Not a legend, but the true story of a mountaineer cat that climbed alone the northern side of the Matterhorn.

This is not a legend, but the real story of the mountaineer cat that climbed, solo, the north face of the Matterhorn.

It’s a beautiful summertime morning of 1950. Daniel Pellissier, congratulating, shakes my hand. It is 6:58, a good time to ascend from the Oriondé – departure at 2 – from the Cross of the Matterhorn. Departed from Giomein the afternoon of the day before, we had met Jean Pellissier who was returning from the Cervino with Guido Monzino, at the beginning of his long story of mountaineer and explorer.

Shortly after seven o’clock a lone mountaineer arrives on top: he’s about my age, confident, elegant.

We introduce ourselves, but the conversation is soon interrupted: we hear strange noises. “It must be those guys” says Daniel, indicating the group of climbers playing around the Swiss peak. The calls continue and more start sounding like a mew. But, suddenly, two ears appear: a cat is struggling on a thin ledge just below us, meowing and rushing toward us. The meows and his movements revealed fact that he was cold and hungry. “Jean had told me (yesterday?) – Daniel says – about a strange meowing at the top.”

He added that he had heard in the past stories of other animals climbers, but certainly never cats.

But there is no time to investigate: they offer the cat biscuits and condensed milk, Emilio Falco took pictures of the four climbers (three men and a Cat, who like all celebrities deserves a capital letter!), and immediately secures the animal in his backpack. The break did not last long, the weather is taking a turn for the worse and we have to descend.

Arrived at Oriondé, a crowd of guests gathers around the hero, going wild with questions and suppositions. The first hypothesis is that the Cat comes from Switzerland. I remember there was a reporter who came from Pavia (or maybe writing for a newspaper from Pavia). I remember a voice saying, “It may be Swiss, but now has chosen Italy”.

After a while everyone goes home, with the exception of the four-legged Whymper / Carrel four that finds his place at the Oriondé, well cared for and proud of his adventure.

Some newspapers talk about the fact: I manage to pick a few, and among them a number of the Domenica del Corriere with an illustrated first page. An aunt wrote me from Brazil, saying she read my name in a newspaper of Sao Paulo.

Gradually memories become loose, the essential remains while some details strengthens over time, such as as the hour of arrival: 6:58 AM. Yes, some may say, why tells us the hour and not the day? And why can’t we see the cards that you said you kept?

From time to time over the years the beautiful story reemerges memory. Papers and photos rather have disappeared in packing and unpacking, in going and coming of home life. The only survivor is my picture with Daniel before the famous cross, but, unfortunately, without Cat.

But here we are now in 2016: here we are at number 4374 of the Settimana Enigmistica (January 2016) where we can find our cat’s story in the “Strange but true” pages. Immediately I regret having never researched over the internet.

And the next morning on my screen appears the page with photos of the Cat, Daniel and a twenty-year old with the moggie in his arms: it’s me! I was in front of pages and pages in praise of our adventure. After a few days I write to Aimée Maquignaz about the facts. I regret to not remember the date (which is always essential, except in fairy tales, and this seems like a fairy tale, although isn’t) and of losing track of Emilio Falco, the main protagonist (after the Cat, of course) and essential documentarist of the story.

At this point I am contacted by Raffaele Canali, cat lover and Cervinia regular, who urges me to track Emilio Falco and tell him the facts. Saddened by the loss of “my” documents, I find in a bookstore the full page of the Tribune Illustrated where our hero looks surprised at Swiss climbers who seem to do a fairly frivolous use of rope and ice axes.

There are delays and there is some hesitation, and I have been lucky to meet one evening at a restaurant an old acquaintance: Maurizio Sella. We talk about of Biella, I mention Falco and the Cat. Wow! He says: “”I know Emilio and I know the story of the Cat, why have you never mentioned it before?”.

In December I pay a visit to Paolo Falco, kind son of Emilio. He comes up to me after detaching from a wall a group photo taken at the Oriondé: with great pleasure I find my name on it and so the the date: August 1st and 2nd 1950. We then go together to visit his father in a beautiful house near Biella.We greet each other with joy, remembering together the epic stories. I immediately recognise in him that elegant lone climber I first met in 1950, just before he started his working life, business and success. Had these sixty-six years really passed?

I can still see the cute little ears of our hero. I see the faces of Daniel and Emilio.The Matterhorn, which has no age, looks back at us.

By Luigi Orombelli

“I am happy to have coordinated the research regarding the “Matterhorn Cat”. The protagonists Luigi Orombelli and E. Falco’s testimony have made legend become reality. I thank my friend Pippo Hosquet, who taught me the story, and Aimeè Maquignaz, owner of the homonymous Hotel Punta Maquignaz of Breuil-Cervinia. In his studio, he guards the proud embalmed cat, which is the protagonist of what many thought were just “fairytales” and of what we, instead, proved to be true.”

By Raffaele Canali